Every year, starting on the 14th of Nisan (a date that falls somewhere in March or April in the Gregorian calendar), Jews around the world celebrate Passover, one of the most important holidays in Judaism. But why is Passover called Passover? The answer to that question lies in the biblical episode that Passover commemorates.
In the book of Exodus, God frees the Israelites from servitude in Egypt by unleashing a series of plagues on the Egyptians. The Nile turns to a river of blood, vermin overrun the fields, a pestilence kills the livestock, skin diseases disfigure the people, and darkness falls over the land. Before inflicting the last and most devastating of the plagues—the slaying of all Egypt’s firstborn—God instructs the Israelites to mark their doorways with the blood of sacrificial lambs. They are then to eat the lambs in a ceremonial meal with unleavened bread and bitter herbs to celebrate “the Lord’s Passover” (Exodus 12:11). But why a “Passover”? An explanation soon follows. God will spare all those whose doors have the special marking: “When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13).
The Hebrew noun rendered as “Passover” in most English translations of Exodus is pesaḥ, which comes from the verb pāsaḥ (“to pass over”) and is often transliterated in English as Pesach. Many English-speaking Jews, though by no means all, use this transliteration rather than Passover in referring to the holiday.
Before either the translation Passover or the transliteration Pesach appeared in English, however, there was yet another English word that stemmed from the Hebrew pesaḥ: Pasch, which has been used since medieval times to refer both to Passover and to Easter. It came to English (via Old French, Late Latin, and Late Greek) from the Aramaic pasḥā, which itself was derived from the original Hebrew pesaḥ.
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